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Record-Low 54% in U.S. Say Death Penalty Morally Acceptable
Politics

Record-Low 54% in U.S. Say Death Penalty Morally Acceptable

Record-Low 54% in U.S. Say Death Penalty Morally Acceptable

Story Highlights

  • Six-point decrease since last year in moral acceptability of death penalty
  • Birth control, drinking alcohol, divorce most morally acceptable
  • Largest gap between liberals and conservatives (52 points) is on abortion

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A record-low 54% of Americans consider the death penalty to be morally acceptable, marking a six-percentage-point decrease since last year. This finding, from Gallup's May 1-13 Values and Beliefs poll, is in line with polling last fall that showed decreased public support for the death penalty and a record-high preference for life imprisonment over the death penalty as a better punishment for murder.

Line graph. Americans' view of the death penalty as morally acceptable or morally wrong since 2001. Currently 54% say it is morally acceptable which is the lowest on record and 40% say it is morally wrong. The highest reading for moral acceptability of the death penalty was 71% in 2006. The decrease in acceptability from 2019 to 2020 was six points.

Gallup has measured Americans' beliefs about the moral acceptability of the death penalty and numerous other social issues each May since 2001.

This year, 40% of U.S. adults think the death penalty is morally wrong, the highest in Gallup's 20-year trend. The high point in the public's belief that the death penalty is morally acceptable, 71%, was in 2006. That year and again in 2007, it topped the list of issues rated for moral acceptability.

The latest decrease in the public's tolerance for the death penalty is largely owed to political liberals and moderates. While two-thirds of conservatives still consider it to be morally acceptable, moderates (56%) and liberals (37%) are at their lowest levels since 2001.

Line graph. Views of the death penalty as morally acceptable or morally wrong since 2001 among conservatives moderates and liberals. Currently 67% of conservatives 56% of moderates and 37% of liberals say it is morally acceptable. The highest reading for moral acceptability of the death penalty was 79% among conservatives in 2006, 69% among moderates in 2005 and 2006 and 60% of liberals in 2002.

Americans View 13 of 21 Issues as Morally Acceptable

Of the 21 issues included in the latest poll, all but five have been measured since the early 2000s, and 13 are considered morally acceptable to majorities of Americans.

  • At least seven in 10 U.S. adults say birth control, drinking alcohol, getting a divorce, sex between an unmarried man and woman, gambling, and smoking marijuana are acceptable moral behaviors.
  • Likewise, two-thirds of Americans consider gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage and medical research using human embryonic stem cells as acceptable.
  • In addition to the death penalty, medical testing on animals, buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur, and doctor-assisted suicide are morally acceptable to narrower majorities.
  • Views on abortion are split nearly evenly, with 47% saying it is morally wrong and 44% acceptable.
  • The remaining seven issues are viewed by majorities of Americans as morally wrong. Extramarital affairs are rated as the most morally wrong behavior, followed by cloning humans, suicide, polygamy, cloning animals, pornography and teenage sex.

Stacked bar chart. Of 21 issues measured, 13 are considered morally acceptable by at least 66% of Americans -- birth control, drinking alcohol, getting a divorce, sex between an unmarried man and woman, gambling, smoking marijuana, gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage and medical research using human embryonic stem cells. In addition to the death penalty medical testing on animals, buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur and doctor-assisted suicide are morally acceptable to narrower majorities. Views on abortion are split nearly evenly and the remaining seven issues are viewed by majorities of Americans as morally wrong: extramarital affairs cloning humans, suicide, polygamy, cloning animals, pornography and teenage sex.

Over Gallup's two decades of measurement, Americans' views have changed the most on gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage, sex between an unmarried man and woman, divorce, and human embryonic stem cell research. Moral acceptance of each of these issues has grown by double digits since the early 2000s.

Ideology Divides Americans on Moral Issues

Just as views of the death penalty are sharply divided depending on Americans' ideological identification, so too are many of the other issues measured. Abortion remains the most ideologically polarizing issue asked about, with 70% of liberals and 18% of conservatives classifying it as morally acceptable. Gay or lesbian relations and teenage sex are the next most divisive issues, with acceptability gaps of 41 and 40 percentage points, respectively.

Moral Acceptability of Issues, by Ideology
% Saying each is morally acceptable
Liberals Conservatives Difference*
% % pct. pts.
Abortion 70 18 +52
Gay or lesbian relations 84 43 +41
Sex between teenagers 60 20 +40
Pornography 56 19 +37
Doctor-assisted suicide 67 32 +35
Sex between an unmarried man and woman 88 55 +33
Smoking marijuana 83 51 +32
Human embryonic stem cell research 77 48 +29
Suicide 32 6 +26
Polygamy 34 9 +25
Divorce 88 64 +24
Having a baby outside of marriage 79 55 +24
Gambling 78 61 +17
Cloning animals 43 29 +14
Married men and women having an affair 15 5 +10
Birth control 96 87 +9
Cloning humans 15 10 +5
Drinking alcohol 87 82 +5
Medical testing on animals 55 59 -4
Buying and wearing clothes made of animal fur 42 63 -21
Death penalty 37 67 -30
*Liberals minus conservatives
GALLUP, May 1-13, 2020

For all of their differences, eight of the issues are deemed acceptable by majorities of both liberals and conservatives: birth control, divorce, sex between an unmarried man and woman, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, having a baby outside of marriage, medical testing on animals, and gambling.

Also, five issues are broadly viewed as morally wrong by liberals and conservatives alike: cloning humans, extramarital affairs, cloning animals, polygamy and suicide.

In addition to abortion, majorities of liberals but less than half of conservatives think five other issues are acceptable: doctor-assisted suicide, human embryonic stem cell research, gay or lesbian relations, pornography and teenage sex.

Conversely, besides the death penalty, there is only one other issue that a majority of conservatives but less than half of liberals view as morally acceptable -- buying and wearing clothes made of animal fur.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.


Gallup https://news.gallup.com/poll/312929/record-low-say-death-penalty-morally-acceptable.aspx
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